Uncivil Rites

Intrigue, inaction and personnel disputes have one federal agency at war with itself. Can't we all just get along?

HISPAC has leveled a number of broadsides at the OCR, from challenging the agency's hiring and promotion practices (HHS's regional offices, including the OCR, actually have a much greater representation of Hispanics than the civilian workforce), to Kyle-Holmes's choices in office furniture, to a perceived lack of regulatory action on discrimination cases involving Hispanics. On the last point, the group has been particularly vocal about the OCR's failure to take action against Denver's federally funded Head Start program months before the program was finally shut down in 1996 amid numerous charges of fraud and mismanagement.

Lovato was the OCR investigator who looked into problems with Head Start's bilingual programs. He says that he made a "strong recommendation" that the Head Start administrators be found in violation of civil-rights laws but that Kyle-Holmes refused to support the finding. "The agency cleared the program when they had all the evidence that they were totally noncompliant," he says. "When I was there, I never saw them find in favor of a Hispanic."

Kyle-Holmes responds by citing numerous cases in which the OCR has successfully pushed hospitals and social service agencies to provide better bilingual services; she notes that assistance to clients with limited English proficiency has been designated one of the agency's top priorities. As for the Head Start case, she says Lovato's investigation "was insufficient to support his recommendation. Not only did I make that call, but I also had the attorney review it for legal sufficiency."

Yet HISPAC has continued to portray Kyle-Holmes and her office as unresponsive to its concerns. "We've tried to meet with her, but she's always had excuses," says HISPAC president Garcia. "She's just queen of the hill."

Garcia points to the experience of another member of his group, psychologist Marion Philippus, who says he filed a complaint with the OCR a year ago on behalf of mentally ill residents of a Denver boarding home. He never received a response. "They're very selective in terms of what they pursue and what they don't," Philippus says. "They've got some good investigators, but the supervision is very strange."

But Kyle-Holmes says her office has no record of ever having received the complaint Philippus describes. She does, however, have an extensive file of correspondence between HISPAC, herself, and other federal officials and denies that she's ever refused to meet with the group. The real issue, she says, is not the OCR's unresponsiveness to the Hispanic community but the paucity of complaints from minority groups in general; most of the complaints the OCR does receive have to do with alleged discrimination against the disabled.

"It's been a concern of mine that we have not had a lot of complaints--not only from Hispanics, but from African-Americans, Asians and Native Americans," she says. "I think part of it has to do with the kind of discrimination we're talking about. There's a reluctance by individuals to file complaints about their health-care provider."

Lovato contends that the lack of complaints raises questions about how the OCR is doing its job; he accuses the regional office of actually fabricating cases to raise its numbers. His office at EEOC, he notes, handles 2,700 employment complaints a year, or an average of 130 cases per investigator. "At OCR, you were considered a good investigator if you could do ten cases, and of those, maybe five actually involved investigation," he says.

In several instances where it was clear that the OCR lacked jurisdiction to investigate, he explains, "they would tell me to contact the employer anyway and have a five-minute conversation to find out what their business is, and they'd put it down as a completed investigative complaint. Sometimes those things had all of two hours of work, but it looked like I had done hundreds of hours of work. I was told that was what I had to do. I was really bothered by that; it's cheating. And that's what would be reported to Congress."

Kyle-Holmes emphatically rejects Lovato's allegations of manufactured investigations. "Absolutely, unequivocally untrue," she says. "I believe I would know that. I review details of cases that are docketed. Absolutely not true."

The regional manager cites official figures that indicate her office has increased its efficiency substantially since restructuring its operations two years ago, handling cases in a shorter amount of time and providing more technical assistance to various community groups. The ongoing criticism of her office is unfounded, she insists, and flows from one source: HISPAC and Jimmy Lovato.

Kyle-Holmes plays a tape of a message left on her voicemail by Lovato shortly after he left the OCR. The voice is angry, vituperative, bristling with indignation as he accuses her of accusing him of stealing a radio; at one point he refers to her as "a convicted discriminatory person." She thumbs through the stack of letters from HISPAC's Garcia attacking her, claiming that the Hispanic community will have no faith in the OCR "as long as Ms. Kyle-Holmes remains the Director of that office."

"The strategy is, 'If we file enough complaints, if we make enough noise, Washington officials will remove Vada Kyle-Holmes,'" she says. "Clearly, that's the objective.

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